Lawyers Journal

MBA Centennial

Samuel P. Sears' response to communist paranoia leads to Law Day

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, a craze swept the nation years before rock n' roll threatened to corrupt impressionable young minds: Communism was jeopardizing everything America stood for, and vigilance was critical.

No one was above suspicion: federal employees, entertainers and even teachers were required to take loyalty oaths. In 1950, the American Bar Association appointed a committee to investigate communist strategies, and in 1951, a committee of the Massachusetts Legislature proposed that lawyers take a loyalty oath.

Specifically, lawyers would have to "solemnly swear" that they did not belong to any organization seeking the overthrow of the state or federal government. Refusing to do so would prevent new members from being admitted to the bar; current members would be suspended.

The ABA and the Boston Bar Association both assigned committees to investigate the communist threat, and both endorsed the proposed oath in its entirety.

The Massachusetts Bar Association's Executive Committee opposed it, however. MBA President Samuel P. Sears (1950-53) felt the best way to thwart the spread of communism was through education and appreciation for the court system.

"Amidst the rampant fingerpointing and the rhymeless, unreasonable harassment of many innocent people, Sears attempted to find a grassroots solution to what was, in the hearts and minds of Americans of the fifties, a real and frightening problem," Robert J. Brink wrote in Fiat Justitia, A History of the Massachusetts Bar Association 1910-1985.

The MBA sponsored The Good Citizenship Program in March 1952, with the goal of having a prominent lawyer share "the priceless heritage that is theirs in this country's judicial system." with every high school in Massachusetts.

"One of the greatest bulwarks in our fight against Communism is our free legal institutions, because if Communism ever came here, we'd have no legal system. We'd be slaves," Sears said. "I thought high school students should know this - they're the ones who'll run things within a few years. And I thought they should also know -- hear from the lips of lawyers, men who are in our courts daily -- that the fight for our kind of system did not come easy."

The Good Citizenship Program lasted for just one year, but Sears' successor, Robert W. Bodfish, reintroduced it as the Massachusetts Heritage Program in 1954. It was a wild success. More than 100 lawyers spoke to an estimated 50,000 high school students, media coverage was extensive and Gov. Christian A. Herter proclaimed December 1954 as Massachusetts Heritage Month.

The ABA, which presented the MBA its Award of Merit in recognition of the program's "outstanding and constructive work," ran with the idea in 1958, designating May 1 as Law Day, a national program that continues today.

Centennial Timeline: 1950s

1950: Continued fears about widespread Communism in the country and in the legal profession spurs American Bar Association president Cody Fowler to establish a seven-man committee to investigate Communist tactics, strategies and objectives.

March 1952: MBA President Samuel P. Sears, believing part of the country's paranoia stems from ignorance about the inner workings of the laws and the courts, institutes the Good Citizenship Program, wherein prominent lawyers visit and address local high schools.

1953: Sears is selected as the Army's chief counsel at the Army-McCarthy hearings; he resignS after his pro-McCarthy comments were made public. He is replaced by MBA member Joseph Welch, who famously commented, "Have you no decency, sir?" and precipitated McCarthy's downfall.

1954: The continued response to Sears' idea to preserve democracy through education is overwhelming. More than 100 lawyers volunteered to speak to high school students, and it was estimated that more than 50,000 students would hear their speeches that year. Public libraries created displays of the state's history and heritage, and prominent local newspapers covered the events. December 1954 was declared Massachusetts Heritage Month.

1958: The culmination of education efforts is the declaration of Law Day, designated as May 1 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the first national, public observance of its kind - though most celebrations focused on the differences between democracy and Communism than the celebration of the nation's laws and Constitution.

Late 1950s: As the association's membership and involvement grows, an organizational framework recognizable to its current membership begins to emerge, including the creation of the position director of public relations, the creation of the newsletter and a statewide continuing education program.

1959: MBA Acting President Harold Horvitz establishes the Committee on Juvenile Delinquency, reflecting society's increased focus of the problem of youths on the streets. The committee also reflects the MBA's first forays into matters only tangentially related to the practice of law.

1960: After 45 years at the helm of the Massachusetts Law Quarterly (now the Massachusetts Law Review), MBA Secretary Frank Grinnell accepts editor emeritus status, stepping aside for Edward Hennessey to take the position of editor-in-chief. Hennessey institutes a series of changes to the editorial content of the Quarterly, allowing MBA members to contribute to the scholarly discussions not just as readers and editors, but as active, original contributors.

­-Compiled by Cassidy Norton Murphy

MBA Did You Know?

  • In the 1960s, the MBA became a force on the frontlines defining and defending the boundaries of the legal profession. It helped form the Joint Committee of the Press and Bar, which resolved the conflict between the media's right to freedom of the press under the First Amendment, and lawyers' claims to their clients' right to a fair trial under the Sixth Amendment.
  • For example, in 1991, a state sales tax on professional and business services went into effect. This threatened both the stability of law firms and lawyers in small practice, as well as the ability of poorer clients to afford the total cost. A little more than 48 hours later, the Legislature repealed the tax. This represented a major legislative victory for the MBA, whose members had campaigned against the sales tax for two years.
  • In the 1940s, MBA President Mayo A. Shattuck recognized that to adequately represent the views of the Massachusetts bar, the MBA needed to include younger lawyers as well. In 1948, the MBA sponsored the Massachusetts Junior Bar Group - and in 1958, attendees of the annual meeting voted to guarantee at least one seat on each major MBA committee and board to a member of the Junior Bar.
  • The Junior Bar Group was expanded to become the Young Lawyers Section in December 1963 and was relaunched as the Young Lawyers Division in late 2006 at the direction of MBA Past President Mark Mason.
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